Airport Activity: Air Carrier Traffic at Canadian Airports, 2020

Release date: August 25, 2021

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In 2020, COVID-19 crippled the aviation industry and brought an abrupt end to 10 consecutive annual increases in air passenger traffic. The total number of passengers enplaned and deplaned at Canadian airports dropped to 45.9 million in 2020, a decrease of 71.8% from the previous year.

From 2019, traffic decreased significantly at Canada’s largest airports. Toronto/Lester B Pearson International and Montréal/Pierre Elliott Trudeau International both saw decreases in passenger traffic of 73.6%, while traffic was down 71.9% at Vancouver International and 69.2% at Calgary International.

Unprecedented declines widespread

In the wake of travel restrictions first imposed in March of 2020 in Canada and around the world, passenger traffic fell sharply for the rest of the year. Measures by provincial governments to control the virus, including closing non-essential businesses, further constrained air operators. Indeed, some Canadian airlines suspended operations entirely while others continued to curtail their operations. 

This plunged air passenger traffic to levels not seen in more than 40 years, with domestic passenger traffic declining 69.4% (64.8 million passengers) from the previous year. With the border closed to non-residents in late March 2020, transborder traffic (with the United States) experienced an even steeper decline, down 78.1% (25.1 million passengers). Air Canada, the only Canadian carrier operating scheduled transborder flights at that time, suspended service in April, and in May resumed service, albeit sharply reduced, for the remainder of the year.

With the imposition of travel restrictions in mid-March of 2020, other international or overseas traffic fell by 72.5% (27.1 million passengers). The Canadian government continued to advise against all non-essential travel outside the country, required mandatory quarantine upon re-entry, and banned discretionary travel to Canada by non-residents. Initially, Canadian carriers maintained a limited number of scheduled flights to international destinations, with a focus on repatriation and the movement of essential goods.

Table 1
Passenger and cargo data
Table summary
This table displays the results of Passenger and cargo data 2019, 2020 and Change 2019 to 2020, calculated using number and percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
2019 2020 Change 2019 to 2020
number percent
Enplaned and Deplaned Passengers
Domestic Segments 93,313,525 28,556,695 -69.4
Transborder Segments 32,192,583 7,053,138 -78.1
Other International Segments 37,357,969 10,287,310 -72.5
Total 162,864,077 45,897,143 -71.8
Loaded/Unloaded Cargo (tonnes) 1,377,026 1,156,704 -16.0

Canada’s busiest airports

In 2020, the four busiest airports accounted for roughly two-thirds (66.8%) of all passenger traffic in Canada including over half (53.3%) of all domestic traffic and even larger shares of transborder (87.2%) and other international traffic (90.6%).

Toronto/Lester B Pearson International enplaned and deplaned 13.0 million passengers in 2020, down sharply from almost 50 million in 2019. Domestic traffic fell 70.4% (from 17.7 million to 5.2 million), international traffic fell 73.4% (from 17.9 million to 4.8) and transborder traffic fell 78.0% (from 13.6 million to 3.0 million).

Next, Vancouver International enplaned and deplaned 7.2 million passengers, about one-third the traffic experiences in 2019 (25.7 million passengers). Domestic traffic fell 66.9% (from 12.3 million to 4.1 million), international traffic fell to one-quarter of its 2019 level (from 7.1 million to 1.8 million) and transborder traffic fell 79.1% (from 6.3 million to 1.3 million).

For the first time since 2014, Calgary International became Canada’s third busiest airport, enplaning and deplaning 5.3 million passengers, but down from 17.2 million from 2019. Domestic traffic fell 66.4% (from 11.9 million to 4.0 million), international traffic fell 73.2% (from 1.9 million to 0.5 million) and transborder traffic fell 76.8% (from 3.5 million to 0.8 million).

At Montréal/Pierre Elliot Trudeau International, 5.2 million passengers were enplaned and deplaned, down from 19.6 million in 2019. Domestic traffic fell 72.2% (from 6.9 million to 1.9 million), international by 73.0% (from 8.2 million to 2.2 million) and transborder by 76.8% (from 4.4 million to 1.0 million).

At each of these airports, most of the passenger traffic was generated in the pre-COVID months of January, February and early in March.

Chart 1

Data table for Chart 1 
Data table for Chart 1
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 1 Total , calculated using passengers (millions) units of measure (appearing as column headers).
passengers (millions)
2000 86,003,003
2001 81,751,079
2002 78,229,504
2003 78,391,224
2004 87,799,030
2005 94,605,005
2006 101,677,328
2007 106,433,442
2008 109,360,095
2009 104,765,830
2010 109,099,196
2011 113,471,763
2012 119,197,489
2013 123,909,945
2014 129,868,870
2015 133,426,703
2016 140,892,544
2017 150,808,451
2018 160,641,587
2019 162,864,077
2020 45,897,143

Essential retail and e-commerce keep cargo in flight

With passenger traffic scarce, moving cargo helped to keep aircraft in the sky. Early in the pandemic, Air Canada began to operate cargo-only flights and modified some passenger aircraft to do so. The steady increase in scheduled cargo-only flights during 2020 helped to limit the year over year decline in the weight of cargo loaded and unloaded at Canadian airports to just 16.0% from 2019.

While the amount of domestic cargo transported by air increased 2.5% from 2019 to 608 000 tonnes in 2020, transborder cargo slipped modestly by 4.0% (230 000 tonnes). The increase in domestic cargo and the relatively small decline in transborder cargo was overshadowed by the large decline in other international cargo, which fell by 41.4% (319 000 tonnes).

During 2020, cargo operators benefited from transporting essential goods and from a rise in online shopping during the pandemic. According to the December 2020 Retail Trade Report, retail e-commerce sales increased 70.5% in 2020, accounting for 5.9% of total retail sales in 2020, up from 3.5% in 2019. And according to the International Civil Aviation Organization, nearly 90% of business-to-consumer global e-commerce transactions involve some air delivery.

Looking ahead

Increasing vaccination coverage rates provide some hope that Canadian air carriers will be able to further open up scheduled services, with some already beginning to ramp up domestic schedules.

Moreover, the federal government began easing border restrictions for international travel in July, as fully vaccinated Canadians flying home from abroad were no longer required to test on arrival with the hotel stopover and follow the 14 day quarantine. This easing helped to further bolster an already upward trend in weekly transborder aircraft movements.

An expanded list of travellers eligible to enter Canada, as well as an easement of requirements for those entering, can only further help the industry recovery.

Note to Users

Cargo data

It is important to note that the air cargo data presented does not represent the total cargo loaded and unloaded in Canada. Comprehensive cargo data are not collected for the following reasons:

i. the regional and local scheduled carriers do not file cargo data on the airport activity survey and,

ii. the major charter survey does not collect data on domestic courier cargo or domestic entity cargo flights.

Passenger flights which carry cargo on them are classified as passenger flights. The cargo carried on these passenger flights is defined as belly-hold cargo. The belly-hold cargo data are included with the pure cargo data in the cargo table, Table 23-10-0254-01.

Services offered by carriers

Scheduled Services

Major Charter Services

Factors which may have influenced the data

For additional contextual information on events affecting air travel, including summaries of selected Canadian economic events, as well as international and financial market developments by calendar month, check out the Canadian Economic News.

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